ANAHEIM, Calif. – A day after the Anaheim Ducks wrapped up the most impressive regular season in franchise history, they were eager to forget all about it.
The Ducks realize their impressive record and Pacific Division title won’t matter much to the Detroit Red Wings, who had to scramble just to make the post-season while Anaheim only needed to coast. That’s why Detroit is a fashionable pick for a first-round upset—and why the Ducks are eager to prove they belong in their spot atop the standings.
“We can use it as fuel,” Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said after practice Monday. “It’s something that you’ve got to go out and prove and earn, and winning in the playoffs is how you earn everything in this league. Anyone can win during the regular season. It’s this time of year that you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Game 1 is Tuesday night at Honda Center.
Second-seeded Anaheim realizes it drew a daunting first-round matchup with post-season-tested Detroit, which has given trouble to Teemu Selanne and his teammates for years.
They franchises are meeting in the playoffs for the sixth time in 16 years. The Ducks beat Detroit along the way to both of the club’s two Stanley Cup finals appearances in 2003 and 2007, but the Red Wings won the most recent meeting, knocking off the Ducks in 2009 in a series featuring several current players on both teams.
“We all know this is going to be a hard series, but it’s time to enjoy this ride,” the 42-year-old Selanne said.
After missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, the Ducks roared out of the gate in this lockout-shortened year and surged to the Western Conference’s second seed and the NHL’s third-best record at 30-12-6, the best season in franchise history by winning percentage—even better than the 2007 Stanley Cup champion juggernaut.
So why aren’t the Ducks expected to roll over Detroit, which barely squeaked into the post-season on the final day of the regular season?
Because that’s not how hockey usually works—and even the Ducks acknowledge that despite their talent, they’ve got more to prove in their return to the playoffs.
“This team here, we’ve got the opportunity to do something special,” said Ducks defenceman Sheldon Souray, who hasn’t been in the NHL post-season since 2006 with Montreal. “That hasn’t been done here for a while. It’s fun to get to this point. Everything picks up, and we can feel it in here.”
The Red Wings begin their final post-season way out West before moving to the cozy Eastern Conference next season, but much about the matchup seems favourable to Detroit, which won two of three against Anaheim in the regular season. The Red Wings took back-to-back games at Honda Center immediately after the Ducks’ cathartic, come-from-behind win over NHL-best Chicago on March 20.
“It’s good to see that we’re playing our best hockey when we have to, and hopefully it keeps going,” Detroit defenceman Kyle Quincey said. “It’s good to see the boys scoring and the defence coming together, and Jimmy (Howard) is playing great. I think everything is firing at the same time.”
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau isn’t flinching in his return to the post-season spotlight, which hasn’t always treated him well. The respected coach led the Washington Capitals to four straight Southeast Division titles and a Presidents’ Trophy from 2008-11, but won just two playoff series in four years, never getting out of the second round.
Boudreau has transformed the Ducks into an NHL power in just two truncated seasons since late November 2011, but he realizes it won’t mean as much without a good bit of post-season success. He’s also wary of the challenges posed by the veteran Red Wings.
“They’re the hottest team coming in,” Boudreau said. “I think it’s very similar to what L.A. was doing last year. They’re the guys with experience. They’re the guys that have been there before. Of course I would think that people are going to think (the Red Wings) are going to win.”
Quincey echoed Boudreau’s comparison of Detroit to last season’s Kings, who steamrolled from the eighth seed to the title.
The Ducks have been essentially preparing for the playoffs ever since their spectacular 22-3-4 start to the year pretty much guaranteed a spot. Anaheim went just 7-5-1 in April, resting some regulars and getting almost everybody healthy, including defenceman Luca Sbisa, who practiced at full speed Monday.
Yet the Ducks’ boundless ability has been obvious all season while they finally achieved the success long expected from their talented roster.
“I think it was actually good timing,” Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller said. “You can’t have a high all the way through. If you’ve got to have a few bad games, you don’t want to have them in the playoffs. We got them out of the way, and I think we’re playing better now.”
Boudreau hasn’t revealed whether Hiller or Viktor Fasth will start Game 1 for the Ducks, only saying: “They know.”
Anaheim used both goalies interchangeably all season, with Hiller getting much-needed relief from Fasth, the first-year NHL pro who won his first eight decisions. Both goalies won 15 games apiece, with nearly identical statistics and playing time.
The Red Wings have no such choice to make. Howard had another standout season, winning 21 games while leading the NHL with five shutouts and finishing ninth in goals-against average (2.13) and save percentage (.923).
“They’re big, they’re physical, they play hard, and they’re really deep at the forward position,” said Howard, who has never led Detroit past the second round. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but at the same time, it’s going to be a lot of fun to go out there in sort of a different role than just getting to the playoffs.”